Elizabeth Earl

Crab harvests set: Kings still in decline, snow and Tanner see bump

This year has brought little good news for commercial fisheries, but the commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea are getting some in the form of some increased catch limits. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2020-21 total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Bering Sea snow and bairdi Tanner crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab on Oct. 1. While the red king crab TAC slid downward again in the continuation of a long-term decline, the snow crab TAC ticked up significantly. A portion of the bairdi crab fishery will also be open again after being closed for the 2019-20 season. Commercial fishermen will be allowed to harvest a total of 45 million pounds of snow crab from the Bering Sea waters this year, with 4.5 million of that set aside for Community Development Quota groups and the rest for individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders. That’s about 34 percent larger than the limit last season, which was also an increase over the previous year. Bering Sea Crabbers Association Executive Director Jamie Goen said that’s good news for the fleet. However, members of the fleet also think that TAC could have been a lot higher had the National Marine Fisheries Service been able to conduct its regular surveys. The federal surveys were canceled this year due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, and so the fishery managers weren’t able to get as much data as usual to make their limit decisions. When faced with a lack of information, fishery managers generally default to conservative management. Goen said this emphasizes the importance of data to the fisheries. “We think there is a 30-year high of (snow) crab out there,” she said. “We’re pleased with this year’s TACs… to me, (this year) stresses the importance of these surveys.” The Western Bering Sea bairdi crab fishery availability is good news, too. Last year, low survey numbers for mature female biomass in the fishery triggered a closure, despite fishermen saying they were seeing plenty of crab. The Board of Fisheries tweaked the management plan for bairdi, also known as Tanner crab, in the Bering Sea earlier this year, and the fishery is set to open in the Western district with a quota of about 2.4 million pounds, with 234,800 of those set aside for CDQ groups. The fishery in the Eastern district of the Bering Sea will remain closed this season, as will the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab fishery. The Board of Fisheries met just before the pandemic began in March and adjusted the management plan for the bairdi crab fishery to address the issue with the fishery triggers. “It was a great process,” Goen said. “They figured out how to create more stability in our fishery.” That TAC is still significantly lower than some of the higher limits between 2014-18, according to a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. NMFS noted that the mature male biomass in the Bering Sea bairdi fishery is still declining, and is “approaching the very low levels seen in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.” Discard mortality is significant in both the bairdi and snow crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. According to reports provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for its Oct. 2 meeting, the most recent recorded discard mortality in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was 33 percent of the total retained catch, the highest fraction on record. There wasn’t any bycatch of bairdi crab in the directed fishery last year because it was closed, but significant amounts of bairdi are regularly caught as bycatch in the snow crab, groundfish, and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries. Bristol Bay red king crab harvests remain in decline. The TAC for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is set at approximately 2.6 million pounds, down about 1 million pounds from last year’s TAC of 3.7 million pounds. The fishery has been consistently seeing low recruitment, with mature biomass trending downward since 2009, though the 2020 biomass estimates are slightly higher than last year, according to a report provided to the NPFMC from Fish and Game biologists. The exact reason for the long-term decline isn’t certain, but it’s unlikely to bounce back at this rate to the highs seen in the 1970s. “Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.” Goen said this isn’t surprising to the fleet, and many of the boats that participate in the red king crab fishery also participate in the snow crab and tanner crab fisheries. The Bering Sea Crabbers Association represents about 70 percent of the crabbers in the region. The crab fisheries are set to open on Oct. 15. What remains to be seen is how the vessels and processors manage the fishery under COVID-19 mitigation protocols. Commercial fishermen and processors all over the state scrambled in March to put together mitigation plans for the virus, looking for ways to control it in the normally cramped conditions aboard vessels and in processing plants. A number of processing plants around the state reported outbreaks among workers over the summer, but the number of cases tapered off over the summer. In Bristol Bay, coordinated response from the fleet and processors led to control of the pandemic and prevention of spread to the surrounding villages. Goen said COVID-19 mitigation is at the forefront of crabbers’ minds as they get ready to head out on the water. Some have had a head start at mitigation from tendering during the salmon season, as have the processors, but there are still issues to work out. Staffing has been a major issue for processors this year, for example. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Elders & Youth focused on language for virtual convention

In the days preceding the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, the First Alaskans Institute brings together teenagers, elders, and everyone in between for the Elders and Youth Conference. But like so many things this year, the usual attendees will have to be together while apart. The First Alaskans Institute is preparing for its first entirely virtual Elders and Youth Conference, set to begin on Oct. 11. The event will be livestreamed on firstalaskans.org as well as broadcast statewide on GCI’s channels 1 and 907, on 360 North, and ARCS. FAI isn’t providing any broad support to elders who may need help with technology to go online and participate, but may do so on a case-by-case basis, said Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, the Indigenous Leadership Continuum Director for FAI. Throughout the conference, they’re also encouraging people to get up and move around, as they’ll be in front of a screen this year. The 37th annual conference will also be entirely free. Usually, attendees are required to register, but with the combination of online and broadcast elements this year, the institute decided to make the event free. Booth said the sponsors helped make that possible this year. “I feel like it wasn’t that hard to reimagine, because we just knew that we had to have this very important statewide event,” she said. “It had to happen, no matter what. We wanted to make sure we were being good relatives to our statewide community and provide something that could lift all of our spirits up in this time of COVID. I don’t think we ever had a doubt that we would host something, but I think the real challenge was figuring out what the format is going to be.” First Alaskans Institute announced the plan to go entirely virtual with the conference and the annual Smokehouse Gala back in July. Since then, the organizers have been reworking plans for how to take the events virtual, which will enable vulnerable people to stay home and prevent the spread of disease from a major event back to dispersed communities. The conference usually takes place in Anchorage, which is also the single largest city in the state and the center of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic. The Elders and Youth Conference always starts with an opening ceremony called the Warming of the Hands, and that won’t change, Booth said. Sunday Oct. 11 will run from 1-5 p.m., and the following days from Oct. 12-14 will run from 8:30-5 p.m. Oct. 12 also happens to be Indigenous Peoples Day, and the events of the conference will line up with that, including language workshops. “(On Monday) we’re going to have our ‘Living and Loving Our Cultures’ workshops, focused on language learning,” she said. “(We’ll be) adding extra time to that session as well, just to celebrate our languages even more, to allow people to really get into learning and practicing, and hopefully they’ll continue that learning after the conference, too.” Some things will look a little different. The Elder Keynote speaker — Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village — will pre-record his message and make it available on Monday Oct. 12, Booth said. Gilbert is a tribal leader, Episcopal priest, Native knowledge and culture bearer and Gwich’in teacher, among other roles. The youth keynote speaker, Kiley Kanats Burton of Cordova, will follow suit on Tuesday Oct. 13. Instead of the regular dance group performances, First Alaskans Institute will air a compilation of the best Chin’an dance group performances over the past decade on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m., Booth said. Each day will begin with optional dawn prayers and well-wishes, which were requested by a community member last year and will continue this year. Workshops will pack the day, as they usually do, including listening circles, regional gatherings, and crafting workshops. For those who pre-registered before Sept. 24, the FAI staff have been mailing out some arts kits, Booth said. There are about 14 workshops to choose from, seven of which require kits. “(Some workshops are) cottonwood carving, cedar basket weaving, canvas rifle case sewing, salmon skin pouch sewing and embroidery, cedar bracelet making, acrylic painting, and COVID-19 mask sewing,” she said. “Some of our workshops that don’t require any kits.” The theme for this year’s conference is “Asirqamek Aprucilutna” in Sugt’sun or “Asisqamek Aprut’liluta” in Alutiiq, both of which mean “We are making a good path.” Language preservation continues to be one of the major goals in the conference, Booth said, the Alaska Native Preservation and Advisory Council appointed by the governor will hold a listening sessions during the conference as well. One of the events many people look forward to are the men’s, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ houses, she said. “They get to share their truth, they get to listen to other people’s truth,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, it adds to their healing journey.” “Part of our job is to host these dialogues,” she said. “We wanted them to be as engaging as we could make them in these virtual settings. You don’t have the same tools… we adapt, and we use what’s available to us. Just the physical experience of our participants being in a virtual meeting, it takes a toll physically on people. We know the importance of encouraging people to get up and take care of themselves. We will try to introduce things that are physical.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

AFN’s first virtual conference eyes 2020 Census, elections

The halls of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage will be much quieter this October without the buzz of the thousands of attendees at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Instead, they’ll be plugged in from home, watching, listening, and participating to the virtual presentations of the 54th year of the event. The Alaska Federation of Natives announced the 2020 convention would be completely virtual this year back in August, looking ahead to the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The AFN convention regularly brings people from all over the state, including from many far-flung communities off the road system. The risk of getting a large group of people together in an indoor facility was too high, according to the AFN. As of Oct. 6, there was still no agenda available for the full convention. It will be available on social media, KNBA radio, GCI channel 1, ARCS, and 360 North. “It was a really tough decision, but the health and safety of our delegates, participants, and attendees comes first,” said Julie Kitka, AFN President, in a press release. “The high risk factors of holding a large, indoor meeting, with lots of Elders and delegates coming in from across Alaska, far outweigh the benefits of gathering in person.” Instead, like the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference and so many other events this year, the organizers are converting the events to virtual ones. On Oct. 15 and 16, attendees will be able to watch pre-recorded videos and live presentations from Native leaders and elected officials as well as interactive panels and other workshops. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, will deliver the keynote address. This year’s theme is “Good Government, Alaskans Decide,” based on the upcoming federal election on Nov. 3 and the 2020 Census, two issues heavily affecting federal actions in Alaska and, thus, many issues in Native communities. Delegates to the AFN also traditionally meet during the convention. This year, they’ll meet virtually as well. AFN is requesting that delegates register as soon as possible, but they can register up until 10 a.m. of the final day of the convention, as it is entirely virtual. According to the delegate packet, some things will change: for example, the live debates on the resolutions and co-chair election won’t happen as usual. The election will happen through an e-voting platform instead. Because of the difficulty of ensuring equal participation among participants on the online platform, the packet also outlines types of resolutions that won’t be accepted. For example, endorsement of candidates or ballot initiatives for 2020 will be considered, and Elders and Youth resolutions will be considered at the Dec. 8 AFN Board meeting. Instead of the regular cultural dance performances, AFN will air a compilation of performances called “Quyana Alaska” over the two evenings as well, from 6-9 p.m. on the AFN Convention virtual meeting app, 360 North and ARCs, or by webcast. Though there won’t be an in-person exhibition hall with booths, there will be a virtual exhibition component, where artists and crafters can sell their work in an online marketplace created for the convention. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Boards of Fisheries, Game contemplate challenges of meeting season

In a fall littered with elections and other political fencing matches, two other political bodies are debating whether to meet at all or just punt until next year: the boards of Fisheries and Game. The boards, particularly the Board of Fisheries, host regulatory meetings every winter that bring stakeholders from all over the state together. Those are problem during the coronavirus pandemic, and the boards aren’t quite sure what to do about it. The Board of Fisheries, for one, is hoping that the situation will be better by the middle of next spring, when it’s still tentatively scheduling its meetings for the Prince William Sound, Southeast/Yakutat, and statewide shellfish meetings. While other governmental bodies have transitioned to meeting on Zoom and taking public comment via phone, the Board of Fisheries process doesn’t fit well into that model. For one, the stakeholders are spread all over the state, where internet connectivity isn’t always reliable or fast enough to cope with video meetings. For another, the board depends on public participation. Throughout the meeting, the board members gather comments from the public in attendance. During breaks, the public also regularly works directly with board members off the record on revisions to proposals or new language. These meetings all happen during the winter, indoors, and depending on the meeting, more than a hundred people may be gathered in a relatively small space for hours. Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight told the board during a work session on Sept. 16 that when the staff surveyed the public about what to do, the results were mixed, but most people who attended meetings in the past were not in favor of virtual meetings. The board talked about potentially limiting attendance at an in-person meeting instead, but then staff would be faced with how to decide who got to come. On top of all that, many people who responded said they were fairly concerned about catching the COVID-19 virus as well, Haight said. “These are the middle of the winter, people in close proximity, frequent contacts with all of these participants day in, day out,” he said. “You as board members are speaking with almost everyone in the room … it’s this very organic and human interaction. It’s inconceivable, for those of us who have been to a board meeting, to get through a board meeting where no one gets sick.” The board members were divided on personal feelings but voted unanimously to pass a set of recommendations about how to scheduling meetings this winter. For now, they’ll be holding the Oct. 15-16 meeting via videoconference, at which time they’ll decide what to do about the remaining meetings in the 2020-21 meeting cycle, which are scheduled to start with the Prince William Sound meeting in Cordova on Dec. 11-17. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department had considered the risk to the community of Cordova in brining staff, board members, and other attendees to the community in the middle of a pandemic, especially with the limited health care resources in the small community. At the same time, though, he said it would be difficult for the department to push the meetings off entirely until next year. That would mean that the department would have to double up on meetings with those already scheduled for the next cycle, and that may not be possible with the existing budget. The board generally agreed with that assessment and generally didn’t like the idea of virtual meetings to replace full board meetings. Board member Gerard Godfrey said the quality of participation would not be the same. “Ideally, we should move forward in person if it’s possible and practical and feasible, because I think there are going to be too many essential factors lost in a virtual meeting,” he said. The board members passed a recommendation for staff to bring back recommendations for options regarding the later meetings at the October work sessions as well. Public comments were divided, with some urging the board to take up virtual meetings. The Board of Fisheries doesn’t currently have any way to telephonically or remotely participate other than submitting written comments ahead of time; neither does the Board of Game. Multiple commenters pointed out that even in a normal year, traveling to attend and participate in the meetings can be very expensive, and after a summer with a blighted economy, this year might not be possible at all. But, on the other hand, other commenters — including major fishing organizations like the Southeast Alaska Seiners, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska — agreed with Haight and Fish and Game staff that a virtual meeting just wouldn’t work. Tina Fairbanks, the executive director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said in a letter that holding the full meetings virtually could exacerbate existing inequities. “Taking the process to an online format is likely to create even greater barriers to participation,” she said. “The individuals and communities likely to already be affected by barriers to participation are also likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged compared to more centrally-located, technologically advanced groups and individuals. Those that are most well versed in the board process and/or more well-connected to decision-makers will have even greater access, likely greater time, and thus greater influence on the process by the simple fact that so many others will be unable to participate in the process.” Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, wrote in a letter to the board that she didn’t support hold the October work session either online or in person, as both have “insurmountable challenges.” She asked the board to postpone all meetings to see how the pandemic develops in the state. The board is scheduled to meet virtually on Oct. 15-16 for a worksession dealing with agenda change requests, non-regulatory proposals, and escapement goal reports from Fish and Game staff. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bizarre salmon season winds down short of state projections

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that 21.2 million pinks had been caught in Kodiak in the 2020 season. On top all the other effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a strange year for Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries. As the fisheries are winding down, the total landings are about 17 percent behind the projections statewide. The Copper River sockeye run was a flop, as was the chum run statewide, and the silver salmon harvest was down everywhere except Kodiak and Bristol Bay. Prices were down, too, and processors had the extra expense and responsibility of keeping workers healthy in remote communities at close quarters. Copper River’s early season sockeye openers seemed to bode ill for the state. After just a few paltry catches, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the fishery, hoping to boost escapement. The reds just never showed up. The sonar at Miles Lake stopped counting July 28 and met the minimum escapement, but without a commercial fishery. Sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet, and stalled out when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July. Bristol Bay largely shrugged off the poor news of the early season, though, and delivered close to the same number of landings as last year: just 9 percent fewer, with about 39.2 million sockeye landed. On top of that harvest, the Egegik, Ugashik, and Naknek-Kvichak districts exceeded their sockeye escapement goals. The Naknek River blew its goal away; more than 4.1 million sockeye passed that river before July 21, the highest escapement on record, according to ADFG. Bristol Bay is the heavyweight in the wild sockeye salmon world; more than three quarters of the sockeye harvested in the state come from there. So the prices posted there for the beginning of the season are usually an indicator for what the value of the harvest is going to be. Usually. “What we’ve seen when it comes to salmon prices is a general decline across the state and across all species,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist specializing in fisheries with the McDowell Group. “Because Bristol Bay is such a high value fishery, a lot of attention is paid to the base price that is posted there, and that was down about 50 percent from last year. There’s a lot of reasons for that.” One of those reasons is because of all the costs processors had to swallow related to the pandemic. Bringing in workers, quarantining them, testing them regularly, and providing protective equipment is expensive. But on top of that, the Bristol Bay sockeye hit in a big pulse rather than being spanned out. Because of capacity, the processors generally moved toward head-and-gutting rather than more added-value products, like filleting and roe, Evridge said. While Alaska fish are entering a more favorable market because the retail sector is recovering and some other stocks haven’t been producing, like Russian farmed fish, prices are generally lower for farmed fish, which may harm the retail prices for Alaska fish, he said. There’s also the economic pressure on consumers to consider. Overall, it paints a picture of uncertainty for Alaska seafood. “2020 is an unusual year, and the early indicators are one of a decline in value, but we’re really going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out in terms of price adjustments made throughout this winter,” he said. “We will have a better handle on what the final price is in the spring of next year.” The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association noted strong retail sales in a press release Sept. 8, praising the fleet and industry for its pandemic prevention measures “Grocery and seafood retailers took notice of this year’s harvest, with several new partners signing on for summertime promotions of fresh sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay,” the organization stated. “Eight retail chains containing over 1,200 individual stores hosted branded Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon promotions or promoted salmon from Bristol Bay online, with many seeing significant sales gains.” Kodiak also saw a significantly better season than other regions. As of Sept. 3, about 21.2 million pink salmon had been harvested, more than three times the harvest in 2018. The sockeye harvest was behind the 2019 landings, but silvers were slightly ahead, with 377,000 silvers landed. The South Alaska Peninsula is doing better than last year for pink salmon, with about 4.1 million harvested, but is still tracking behind the multi-year averages. On the other hand, Chignik experienced one of its worst seasons on record. Both the early and late sockeye runs were extremely weak, prompting closures on the commercial fishery there. Up until ADFG pulled out the weir in the Chignik River on Aug. 27, only 309,702 sockeye had been counted for the entire season, which wasn’t enough for either run to meet its escapement goal. That’s the third year in a row for the early run, and ADFG doesn’t project that any remaining fish will help the late run meet its escapement goal. The chum run made its escapement in the Chignik Management Area made its escapement, but the pink run did not. Two years ago, the community received a federal disaster declaration for a similarly poor run and closure and is just now seeing funds distributed to cover that disaster. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hospitals keep up with COVID cases, but staff feel strain

Alaska’s health care providers are following the number of new of coronavirus infections with trepidation as it trends upward while they try to manage the cases and urge people to take precautions. As the summer draws to a close, Alaska is watching its hospitalizations for coronavirus infections steadily tick up. As of Aug. 25, there were 40 coronavirus-positive hospitalizations in the state, with six others under investigation. That’s the most it has been since the pandemic began in March, and since June, hospitalizations have been regularly reaching new highs. Hospital capacity remains adequate for now, with just more than half of the inpatient beds in the state occupied as of Aug. 25, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Since the very beginning, officials have been taking on mitigation measures to try to keep hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19-positive patients. But as time goes on, hospitalizations have increased even as the overall infection curve seems to flatten and the state is heading into flu season and the start of school, when normal hospital occupancy goes up and staff becomes busier. That’s something health care executives are keeping a very close eye on, said Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. As long as Alaska can continue to ride the wave, hospitals should be able to handle it. “Our single biggest concern is if hospitalizations keep growing and hospitals stay this busy, and we have this influx of COVID patients that we’ve never seen before,” he said. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was significant concern about hospitals’ capacity for high-acuity patients with COVID-19 who required intense care and ventilators within an intensive care unit. Increasingly, COVID-19-positive patients in Alaska are not having to go to the ICU. Of the 40 who were reported hospitalized with the virus, only 25 percent were in the ICU, Kosin said. Hospitals decide on staffing partially based on their daily count of patients. They have some flexibility based on the level of care patients need, with some constraints; for example, ICU nurses typically have additional training. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who need ICU care may also require the services of a respiratory therapist, which places additional needs on hospital staffing. Keeping staffing levels up has long been an issue for hospitals, between employees taking leave, schedule coordination, sudden outbreaks of disease, and now the need to quarantine staff who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Kosin said hospitals are constantly working on their emergency response plans for massive demands on their services, such as in the case of a plane crash or natural disaster. So far, they’ve been able to absorb the additional needs into their operations without having to activate surge plans. There are definitely strains on staff, though. Donna Phillips, the labor council chair with the Alaska Nurses Association, said wearing the PPE all day every day is uncomfortable, in part because of temperature. Hospital facilities for staff, like break rooms, may not be set up for social distancing, either, and moving patients around from area to area with all the equipment and protective gear requirements are additional time burdens for nurses who were busy to begin with. “Those kinds of things I think are super challenging,” she said. “It’s very different, the heat that is generated by wearing a mask all day is kind of difficult. I’m fascinated by how hot you are.” There’s also been the additional burden of bedside care for patients who can’t have visitors, either. Phillips said that’s something nurses will make time for, as they want to provide good bedside care, but it’s not necessarily something they get extra time for. “It is more work for the bedside caregiver … to keep everybody around them safe, and without having visitors in the hospital, you’re the only one who can calm that patient down and (still) have one, two, three, four, however many patients you have, so the only person that’s with (the patients) are the people working in the hospital,” she said. “Now that falls to the nurse, the social worker, the case manager, whoever else has time to hold that iPad so they can have a 10-minute conversation with their family once a day.” So far, there has not been a critical shortage of staff, but there may be some burnout among nurses, she said, especially as hospital census counts have gone back up with other patients beyond coronavirus patients. If infections and hospitalizations increase again enough to reverse some of the state’s reopening, it could have serious financial consequences for hospitals. This spring, as a preventive measure to conserve beds for the pandemic, hospitals cancelled all elective surgeries and other procedures. Unlike emergency services and some other acute services, elective surgeries are major moneymakers for hospitals, and cancelling them for several months meant a major financial hit, particularly for smaller and rural hospitals that operate on thinner margins. Health care providers, including hospitals, did receive some pandemic relief money, but Kosin said the uncertainty looming around infections and hospitalizations is concerning. Kosin said ASHNHA and other health care agencies are encouraging the public to take precautionary measures like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing expressly with the intent of keeping hospitalizations down to a manageable level, especially as flu season approaches. “The fate of this is really in every individual’s hands,” he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Governor proposes lifting state CARES grant restrictions

Update: Lawmakers approved the Dunleavy administration's request to expand eligibility for the remaining AK CARES grant funds Thursday at a Legislative Budget and Audit Committee meeting in Anchorage. The changes, which take effect Aug. 31, allow businesses that recieved any amount of aid from the federal Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection or Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs to also recieve AK CARES support, which is federal CARES Act money passed through the state. Businesses that are the owner's secondary source of income are also now eligible for AK CARES grants. Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked committee members for approving the changes and said the adminsitration is working to quickly distribute the roughly $240 million that remains in the program in a statement from his office. Committee chair Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he believes the administration could have eased the eligibility requirements for the state's federally funded small business aid program without legislative approval, but all of the potential roadblocks are now cleared for more businesses to access the funds. "It's been clear for months that the administration had the broad authority to get this relief to small businesses, but today's action eliminates any uncertainty," Tuck said. On Wednesday, the Municiaplity of Anchorage announced a second round of pandemic aid grants is now available for many small businesses in the city. The $5 million infusion to the city's Small Business Stablization Fund follows $1 million in grants that awarded to eligible businesses earlier this year. The latest round of grants are for businesses within the municipality that have been economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, had less than $1 million in gross revenue in 2019 and had no more than 20 employees at any time last year. Eligible businesses generally must be the owner's primary source of income, according to criteria provided by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's office. Successful Small Business Stabilization Fund applicants will recieve a $10,000 grant to be used on payroll, benefits, utilities, rent and other normal business expenses. Franchises, pawn shops, bars and marijuana shops are among the businesses not eligible for the grant funds. The grants will be processed by Cook Inlet Lending Center and the Small Business Stabiliation Fund application is available on the center's website. Applications will be accepted through Sept. 12, according to a municipal spokesman.   Original story: With about four months left before all the Alaska CARES Act money has to be out the door and roughly $240 million left unspent, the state is moving to change the eligibility to include small businesses that have received other federal pandemic aid. In a Revised Program Legislative noticed issued Aug. 20, the state notified the Legislature that it wants to open up the Alaska CARES pandemic relief funding to more businesses. Currently, small businesses that received more than $5,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds or Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds are not eligible. The state estimates that more than 20,000 small businesses in the state received those funds and therefore couldn’t get any of the state funding. Between that and other initial caveats, including making commercial fishermen ineligible, the state was left with way more pandemic relief money available than it was distributing. Regional economic development groups, known as the Alaska Regional Development Organizations, began advocating for major changes to the program in June to the Legislature. In a press release issued Aug. 20, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state wants to provide businesses with tools to survive the ongoing impact of the pandemic. “AK CARES was crafted with the finest mesh to help those businesses who fell between the cracks when the door closed on them to other federal relief efforts,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “We accomplished opening that door, and we are now expanding that relief to other small Alaska businesses in real need.” The RPL letter and attachments can be found here.  The state’s revised RPL will go to the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee for review. The exact language is to allow the administration remove any additional state restrictions on businesses applying for the funding, including businesses that received those PPP or EIDL funds and businesses that are a secondary source of income. Companies based outside Alaska, companies with more than 50 employees would still be ineligible as will marijuana businesses, and amounts would still be limited to between $5,000 and $100,000.  Though businesses that received those PPP and EIDL funds would now be eligible, there’s a catch: they still wouldn’t be able to seek reimbursement for expenses already covered through another relief program. The deadline may be extended federally, but the RPL would provide the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development more flexibility in administering the funds, according to the RPL documents. “This flexibility will allow DCCED to ensure AK CARES meets the needs of small businesses in the most effective and efficient manner possible,” the documents state. “This may include, but is not limited to, raising the number of full-time equivalent employees a business may have and still qualify for the program, disbursement processes, and allowable expenses. Accordingly, the DCCED will be able to adjust eligibility requirements and grant amounts as necessary to allow for full use of federal funds made available through the CARES Act to assist Alaska businesses.” The Legislature now has 45 days to act. No action would lead to automatic approval of the change. If the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee — scheduled to address the RPL’s at an Aug. 27 meeting — approves the change, it could go into effect immediately. If the committee doesn’t approve it, the administration could reassess, and if the reassessment shows that the change still benefits the state, could override the Legislature and put it into effect immediately. The Legislature’s recourse then would be to go into session and require a two-thirds majority vote to override it.  Legislators have by and large said they had wanted the administration to take action to ease the restrictions for small businesses to access the $290 million originally appropriated to the AK CARES program, but have not moved to make the changes themselves during campaign season. The clock is ticking down on the availability of pandemic relief funds. The federal CARES Act stipulated that all the funds had to be distributed by December 30, 2020. Many municipalities around the state have been busy administering their own local programs, but the state program has been slow to get money out since opening applications on June 1. Besides the eligibility roadblocks, there has also been a bottleneck for processing applications, as Credit Union 1 was the only financial application that agreed to process the applications. Applicants have reported waiting for weeks to even hear back. CU1 had distributed $32.3 million in AK CARES Grants with another $8.7 million in dispersals pending as of Aug. 21, according to spokeswoman Jessica Gallagher. The credit union had received 2,559 applications totaling roughly $115 million in requests since the program began in June. Gallagher wrote via email that the decision by DCCED leaders to move the online application to a portal on the department’s website, which went live Aug. 6, allows state officials to more easily bring on additional AK CARES operators to increase the program’s grant processing capacity. The credit union developed multiple resources, including tutorial videos for prospective applicants to review prior to submitting their documents but consistently found staff needed to assist applicants throughout the process because applying for grants isn’t something most small businesses do, she wrote. Gallagher added that each applicant is different and deserves their application to be reviewed carefully, which simply takes time, and CU1 officials welcome help from other entities. “Credit Union 1 understands the significant challenges these small businesses are facing right now, so the more operators working toward helping the distribution of AK CARES funds, the better,” Gallagher wrote. Alan Weitzner, executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority — the state development bank under DCCED tasked with finding AK CARES operators — said in an interview Aug. 25 that the state has partnered with the Juneau Economic Development Council for processing assistance and now has nearly 60 grant processors to CU1’s program staff of approximately 35. CU1 staff are focusing on the applications the credit union received prior to the application change, according to Weitzner, who said they have done a great job focusing on the needs of Alaskans. “It was never going to be fast enough” he said, given how many businesses are in need. The added help has cut the time needed to process an application roughly in half over the past several weeks, he added, and state officials are looking at bringing on even more help in the near future. The RPL notice issued Aug. 20 includes 12 items total. Of those, 11 are capital projects that total about $42 million in federal funds. This is around the time of year when federal receipt authority becomes active. The other 11 projects include money for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The federal funds for those projects don’t require an appropriation of state match, according to the RPL documents. Small businesses statewide have been collectively wringing their hands about what’s going to happen in the fall and winter. This summer already forced a lot of belt-tightening around the state due to the lack of tourists and limited economic activity even within communities, and the fall and winter usually bring low economic activity even in ordinary times.  Elwood Brehmer contributed to this report. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected] 

ADFG releases draft disaster funds plan for Chignik salmon, P-cod

In the middle of two ongoing disasters — the coronavirus pandemic and extremely poor salmon runs in many regions of the state — some fishermen may finally see some money to help with disasters from 2018. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is looking for comments on its draft distribution plans for relief funds connected to the Pacific cod disaster in the Gulf of Alaska and the Chignik sockeye salmon disaster, both in 2018. The comment periods for them are open until Aug. 14. Two years ago, Pacific cod fishermen were facing a dismal season, with two age classes of fish just missing. The P-cod fishery is highly valuable and high-volume in Alaska’s groundfish fisheries, accounting for about a fifth of the total groundfish catch in Alaska every year. But the increasingly warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska seem to be connected to declining fish survival. The survey numbers led the National Marine Fisheries Service to close the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery entirely for the 2020 season. The Secretary of Commerce confirmed the disaster declaration in October, and in early 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, set aside $24.4 million for the disaster. Under the current draft plan, harvesters would be eligible for 40 percent of that, with 51 percent going to pot catcher vessels, 29 percent to trawlers, 4 percent to jig vessels, 8 percent to longliners, 7 percent to longline catcher-processors, and 1 percent to trawl catcher-processors. Those values were calculated based on wholesale value among the six sectors, according to the plan. With the exception of the jig sector, which would be permit-based, ADFG is proposing for distribution to be vessel-based. Payments to individual vessels would be determined in tiers, based on the average landings over three years, calculated by the best two of three years. Processors would be eligible to receive 26 percent and communities for 4 percent, with community payments pro rata based on demonstrated loss, with a threshold of at least $10,000 of landings in a community. The remaining 30 percent would be set aside for research. With the changing temperature regime in the area, there are other repercussions, like changing phytoplankton and zooplankton. “Species at the top of the marine food chain, including Pacific cod, experienced lower recruitment (reduced juvenile survival) and increased mortality was documented in fishes, birds, and mammals,” the draft plan states. Funding would be available by bid, with preference for projects that help managers understand the causes of the 2018 cod crash, such as projects focusing on understanding the effect of warming temperatures on Pacific cod ecology and dynamics, early life history studies, and more information about stock spatial structure, migration patterns, and connectivity based on new genetics or genomics. A small portion, less than 1 percent, would be set aside for ADFG to administer the grants as well. In 2018, Chignik saw its worst sockeye run to date. Less than 150 fish were harvested as the run struggled to make escapement. NMFS designated $10.3 million in relief funds for that fishery, with 55 percent set aside for harvesters. Chignik is a fairly exclusive salmon fishery, with many of the local fishermen reliant on that cash income to pay for items like heating oil and gasoline for the winter. The relief funds are calculated to cover about 75 percent of the average ex-vessel value from 2015-17. ADFG’s draft plan would split that 55 percent into two groups, with 65 percent going to vessel owners and 35 percent going to crew. The plan divides payments for vessel owners into four tiers, based on the average landings for the best two out of three years. Crew, on the other hand, would get equal payments as long as they can provide information showing they had a license in 2018 and participated as crew in 2018. Processors would be eligible for 11 percent, with an option for tender vessels, and communities would be eligible for 3 percent. The Chignik Intertribal Coalition, or CIC, would be eligible for 1 percent under a subsistence designation, which would be intended to help the group provide other sustained options for subsistence activities. “Residents of the region are heavily dependent on the sockeye salmon runs to sustain their subsistence lifestyle,” the plan states. “The CIC may need to identify specific projects or infrastructure that support subsistence activities in the region prior to receiving funds from (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission). The funds could also be considered for direct payments to regional households to mitigate food security concerns.” Like the cod fishery, 1 percent would be set aside for ADFG administration and 30 percent of the money for Chignik would be designated for research. It’s not entirely clear what happened in 2018, as both the early and late runs failed. Projects ADFG is interested in grantees pursuing would be to help understand environmental factors and freshwater and marine production for both runs, investigate juvenile movement, growth, and habitat use in freshwater and estuaries, better salmon enumeration methods, and better understandings of the socioeconomic impacts of fishery disasters on subsistence communities like Chignik. Even as ADFG is working on the plans to distribute that funding, fishermen all over the state are struggling with ongoing disasters. Chignik is facing another extremely poor run, with restrictions this season in both the subsistence and commercial sockeye fisheries. Only 255,579 early run sockeye were counted on the Chignik River, less than even in 2018; as of Aug. 3, only 117,131 sockeye had been counted as well, less than half of the run in 2019. Prices are also a major concern for fishermen, as restaurants all over the U.S. face fluctuating restrictions and openings amid the coronavirus pandemic. With that uncertainty and the burden of the additional costs for COVID-19 mitigation this season, including quarantining crew arriving in the state and additional personal protective equipment, Alaska fishermen have felt the pinch this year. The state recently made CFEC permit holders eligible to apply for Alaska CARES Act funds, which can be applied toward eligible expenses and impacts related to the pandemic. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay remains lone bright spot for sockeye harvest across state

The statewide salmon harvest is ticking up as the summer goes on, but most of that is in Bristol Bay. In most of the rest of the state, the harvest has been disappointing. As of July 20, Bristol Bay fishermen had landed about 35.8 million sockeye, which is slightly more than the preseason forecast of 34.5 million. Overall, 52.6 million sockeye have returned to the bay in 2020, which is also ahead of the preseason forecast of just less than 49 million. Both are less than the 2019 numbers, when the runs significantly outperformed preseason forecasts. Most of those were harvested in the Naknek-Kvichak and Egegik districts in the eastern bay, with 12.8 million and 11.5 million sockeye harvested respectively. The Nushagak District has seen 8.6 million sockeye landed, followed by the Ugashik District with about 1.8 million. The Togiak District has landed 161,438 as of July 20, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. West side commercial area management biologist Tim Sands says one thing holding up Nushagak harvest early in the season was the king salmon escapement there. Like other rivers across the state this year, the king salmon run there was less than biologists would like to see, which limited commercial fishing opportunities. “We were very conservative here for quite a while because of Nushagak River king salmon,” he said. “We didn’t make the king salmon escapement last year, we didn’t make it again this year.” But once the king salmon run was mostly over, they were able to get down to fishing. The Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, and Nushagak districts lined up this year for harvest, with more than 2 million of them hitting the processors the weekend of July 4. But overall, the Nushagak has felt a little strange this year, Sands said. “We’re looking at the fifth-largest harvest in the Nushagak District ever, and it just didn’t feel that way,” he said. “(It was) really frenzied, and then quiet, then frenzied, then quiet. Compared to the last three years, when it picked up and was steady for a long time, it just seemed different this year.” The prices so far aren’t likely to be what they were in the last few years, either. Early posted prices on the South Peninsula were about 60 cents per pound. Bristol Bay’s prices may change a little, but that 60-cent price point is a little more than a third of last year’s average price of $1.54 per pound. Prices are also subject to fluctuation with the openings and closings of restaurants due to concerns about the pandemic. But the bay is doing better than everywhere else in the state for sockeye. Kodiak fishermen have landed about 396,000 sockeye for one of the worst sockeye harvests in decades; Cook Inlet is up to 493,000; and the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Island is about 1.5 million. Prince William Sound landings are about 885,000, or less than half of what last year, largely due to a disappointing Copper River run that led to shutdowns early on in the season. Cook Inlet is also having a slow harvest season, with the Kenai River’s sockeye run trickling in and disappointingly few king salmon numbers forcing managers to rein in the commercial fleet. The Kenai River isn’t likely to meet its king salmon escapement goals, according to Fish and Game’s projections, which means the setnet fleet is limited to 24 hours of fishing time per week by emergency order only. If the sportfishery for kings closes entirely, the East Side setnet fleet will as well. The Kasilof River run of sockeye is performing well, with enough fish already in the river to meet escapement despite both commercial fisheries and a 24-hour personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river, and managers have been using the 600-foot fishery in the area to help control escapement. Prince William Sound is transitioning to pink salmon now and so landings are about 5.8 million of them so far, only a little behind the 2018 catch by this date. The wild run forecast for the whole of the sound is about 4.4 million, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. and Valdez Fisheries Development Association are each expecting about 14.6 million hatchery pinks to return. Kodiak’s pink harvest is significantly up from this time 2018, with about 554,000 of them landed, and Southeast is slightly ahead, with 477,000 landed. The pink salmon harvest pace overall is largely on par with what it was around this time in 2018, according to an update from the McDowell Group. “The peak of the statewide pink harvest is typically the last week of July or first week of August,” the update states. “According to the ADF&G harvest projection, PWS will contribute most pink production this year followed by Southeast and Kodiak.” Southeast’s salmon season has largely been disappointing except for king salmon, though that overall catch is fairly small. About 117,000 king salmon have been landed in Southeast, which is about 10 percent above last year’s catch at this time, according to the McDowell Group harvest update. The chum salmon run was forecast to be about 3.9 million from the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, about 2 million from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association and about 1.6 million from Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. By all metrics, those runs are underperforming. Southeast fishermen had landed about 705,000 chum as of July 21, according to ADFG. Some of those runs to hatcheries are fall chum, but inseason tracking from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association shows the runs are behind. Through July 17, chum landing were about 69 percent off the five-year average, according to the McDowell Group. Kodiak is an exception, with landings ahead of last year for chum, pink, coho and kings, according to the McDowell Group. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Emerging mariculture industry takes setback from market losses

For the past few years, mariculture has been the hot topic of innovation in fisheries in Alaska. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of the budding farms took a huge financial hit to their operations. In the past five years, Alaska has seen a boom in the number of applications for mariculture operations, focusing on oysters, geoduck clams and kelp. Their main outlet has been in restaurants and wholesale food service, where they’ve been able to carve a niche for sustainably grown Alaska seafood and supply markets both in the state and the Lower 48. But the coronavirus pandemic closed restaurants across most of the United States in March, and large events or group cafeterias that required catering or food service remain mostly off the table. That left the mariculture farms in Alaska with a much more limited market but still a lot of product to move. For Ketchikan-based Hump Island Oyster Co., it’s going to be a tough year. Owner Trevor Sande said the company has mostly sold its oysters to wholesalers who distribute to food service businesses and retailers, with some going to local sources. They also grow a small amount of kelp, but the majority of the farm produces oysters. With seven years of shellfish growing under their belts, Hump Island has been increasing its business size every year, and this year’s plummet leaves them with a lot of oysters that don’t have anywhere to go. “It’s going to be a tremendous disaster, financially,” he said. “We have six to seven million oysters in the water right now. We’re just going to need to keep borrowing money to keep them alive and keep up with the husbandry.” Sande said this year they were planning to expand their tours, pulling in more cruise ship passengers and visitors to Ketchikan. But with cruise ships docked and the Canadian border closure limiting ferry visitors coming from Prince Rupert, Ketchikan is quiet. Oyster farmers may be getting hit twice, too. Sande said his farm, like many others in the state, uses floating rafts and trays to cultivate oysters because of a lack of suitable tidelands in the Ketchikan area. That means that in order to build capacity, farmers have to first build more rafts with trays. That costs money, and without anywhere for the oysters to go, it’s either throw out more or swallow the cost for more infrastructure. A survey conducted by Alaska SeaGrant in February and March showed that many farms had to lay off staff after the mandates sharply reduced revenue. About 43 percent of respondents said their revenue was down by more than half, and more than a third had laid off employees. The vast majority cited restaurant closures as the reason, though about half said labor shortages or reduced export opportunities were also responsible, according to the survey. The winter months are mostly kelp harvest. Oysters are harvested in the summer, and while some restaurants have reopened, mandates vary across the country and restaurant sales are still down. Some oyster farmers cited concerns about wasted harvest due to labor shortages, according to the survey. That’s not been Sande’s experience so far in Ketchikan, where he said plenty of people are out of work because of the downturn in the tourism industry. “Ketchikan’s been so devastated by the lack of any cruise ships,” he said. “If I could afford it, I ‘d hire 20 of (the displaced tourism industry workers). We do most of our work from May through September.” Getting a mariculture farm off the ground is expensive, both for the working capital for business expenses and the permitting. But in early 2019, so many people had applied that the state was backlogged nearly a year-and-a-half on approving applications. There are still some that haven’t been processed, and once they are, there may be a lull in people being willing to lay out cash to build up farms, said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. “Long-term, I don’t think it’s going to see a significant impact, because there’s still good demand for food products,” she said. “They’re still sort of an essential item … They’re being sold in different markets in different ways, but there’s still a demand for food.” One thing that may rise from the difficulty in the supply chain for mariculture businesses is a diversification of products, but even that takes time and money. Rebranding, reinventing, and remarketing can be challenging, Decker said. While demand in restaurants has been down, demand in retail has been up during the course of the pandemic. Mariculture businesses that have heavily relied on restaurants or wholesalers may have to diversify, similarly to how the salmon fisheries had to change to frozen fillets from canned after farmed fish began challenging their market. For some products, shifting to frozen or online has been easier than others—for example, kelp farms have been providing product to Juneau’s Barnacle Seafoods, which has been selling shelf-stable products like salsa and seasoning for some time, Decker said. “A live product like a live oyster (or a ) half-shell oyster has more challenges than some other products to shift quickly. Transportation is hard for online sales unless you can get to a frozen product,” Decker said. “When you put all your eggs in one basket, when there’s a disruption, you’re hit really hard.” Ocean farming has been attractive for Alaskans, particularly for fishermen in regions who have increasingly seen their fisheries restricted due to low abundance and the cost to participate continue to rise. “It’s hard to say how drastically this will impact development in the next couple of years,” she said. “Sometimes crises force people to do things different, or drive them toward change faster than they would have otherwise. It’s hard to tell exactly how it’ll turn out.” Sande said the farm is luckily not his family’s sole income, and they’re working on some other options, like canning smoked oysters, to take care of some product. At the end of next year, though, if the farm’s not making money, he said they’ll make a decision about whether to keep going. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon fishing off to a slow start statewide

Salmon harvests statewide are slow so far as the fisheries head toward their usual high points in July. So far, fishermen have landed about 5.8 million salmon. That’s less than half of the 2018 numbers by the same date, when 14 million had been landed. Much of that is due to poor sockeye returns, particularly in the Copper River area, though everywhere is slower than previous years, including Bristol Bay. The Copper River and Bering River districts continue their shutdown this week due to unexpectedly low sockeye returns. The return to the Copper River is not living up to the preseason forecast, with only 378,058 sockeye through the Miles Lake weir as of June 29, compared to more than 696,828 by the same date last year. The forecast called for 1.5 million sockeye to return to the Copper River this year. In an emergency order issued June 27, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted that the escapement through June 25 is about 85,000 fish behind projections, and the surveys of the Copper River Delta are significantly behind estimated ranges. “[Through June 25], the sonar count is the 14th lowest on record (1978-2020),” the emergency order states. “Cumulative commercial harvest this year is the fourth lowest harvest to-date in the last 50 years. “ As of June 27, fishermen across Prince William Sound had harvested about 495,000 sockeye, less than half of the 2019 number of about 1.1 million. Chum salmon harvests are down about 44 percent as well, and king salmon harvests are down about 75 percent, according to a harvest update from the McDowell Group. Fishermen in the Copper River district have harvested 81,228 sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Pink salmon have yet to show up in the Sound in large numbers. Bristol Bay is also somewhat behind, though there’s still time for the harvest to pick up. Last year was another banner one for the Bay, and 2020 is forecast to be more modest—around 34.6 million available for harvest with a total run of 46.6 million, according to ADFG. But even for that prediction, harvest is pretty slow; only about 1.5 million sockeye have been harvested, about 78 percent less than last year. Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, noted that other seasons that ended up having exceptionally large harvests started slowly as well. “We also had a slow start in 2012, 2015 and 2016; those last two ended up producing over 35 million sockeye harvested in the Bay,” he said. “We’re between 10 and 15 percent of our way through the normal harvest curve. There’s still plenty of time to catch up.” One of the major pressures on the Bay has been concern about COVID-19 infections, both spreading in vulnerable communities and in processors, where they could bring the fishery to a swift halt. Last week, a dozen seafood workers in Dillingham tested positive, though they were quarantined and not spreading it in the community. Overall, there were 19 nonresident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. By contrast, there were only two resident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs. Wink said the protocols the industry has set up to prevent the spread of the virus seem to be working. “We haven’t seen really any community spread thus far in the Bay, and that’s really encouraging. A lot of the fishermen and processing workers came in in early June. I think one of the concerns was were we going to see transmission of the virus when they were in the plane, in the boatyards … by this time, we would have seen that if that had happened,” he said. “So far so good. We’re not out of the woods yet, but I think all of the precautionary measures and all of the work that went into setting up the season are working.” Commercial fishing is mandated as an essential industry, with long lists of protocols for how fleets and processors should work this year and prevent the spread of the virus. Of the 64 nonresident cases identified last week, 43 were in seafood workers. All of them were quarantined prior to testing positive, according to the DHSS. Upper Cook Inlet’s fishermen are off to a slow start as well, with 61,904 salmon landed so far. About 59,000 of them are sockeye. That’s down about 73 percent from last year, according to the McDowell Group. The Kenai subdistrict setnetters have yet to come online, but they’ll be restricted based on the prohibition of bait in the Kenai River late-run king salmon fishery as well. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of last year, with 79,292 fish passing the sonar as of Monday, according to Fish and Game. The Kenai River sonar went online July 1. The sockeye being caught in the Kenai mainstem so far are largely Russian River sockeye, which are headed upstream to spawn near Cooper Landing. That sportfishery opened mid-June with additional area: Fish and Game opened the sanctuary area near the confluence of the two rivers early. The sanctuary doesn’t usually open until the late run or if the run is particularly large. Upper Cook Inlet sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka said opening up that area spaced out the anglers more along the fishery. “This year, we saw what we needed to see, and I think it served everybody’s interest to spread out a little more up there,” he said. “This is a fairly new tool that we have since we have a few more years of data.” The weir at Lower Russian Lake has counted 13,655 sockeye so far, a fraction of what it counted last year on the same date. However, that 13,655 is about 8,400 fish lower than the lower end of the escapement goal for the early run, and there are still two weeks left before it transitions to the late run. Last year was an anomalously huge run, Lipka said. They ended up with nearly 126,000 sockeye on the early run, about triple the upper end of the escapement goal. “If we actually look at the average early run escapement, last 10 years, it’s 40,000,” he said. “Last year’s was 125,000. The next biggest year behind 2019 was back in 2002, and that was 85,000. Last year was a true exception. It’s awesome to see those years; what we’re looking at this year was a little more back towards normal. It does seem like the run is a little more spread out.” Effort on the Russian so far has been reportedly good on weekends but light on week days compared to a normal year, meaning it’s mostly residents using their weekends to fish as opposed to the normal load of tourists. Lipka cautioned anglers that there have been reports of brown bear activity on the road side of the river this year and that anglers should keep their gear and fish close. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Tourism operators across Alaska ponder how to salvage season

The ice is going out on the teal surface of Kenai Lake, the centerpiece of Cooper Landing and the source of the Kenai River. In a normal year, gaggles of early-season fishermen are there with their drift boats ready to take advantage of it. After all, the local get first chance at the famous Kenai River rainbow trout, and they may not want to compete with the cosmopolitan crowds of tourists that pack the lodges, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds of the small Kenai Peninsula town from Memorial Day through the late fall. But 2020 isn’t like most years. The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of the Alaskan economy over the last two months, but perhaps none more so than the tourism industry. The summer tourism season is short but profitable across the state and particularly concentrated in Southeast and Southcentral, where many travelers head to communities like Cooper Landing to get a wilderness experience like fishing, bear viewing, or backcountry hiking. For many of these communities, tourism is the only major industry, with year-round jobs scarce and little permanent industry in the area. “We’re getting a couple bookings every day, but we are getting a couple cancellations every day, too,” said Bob Rima, owner of Drifter’s Lodge in Cooper Landing. “(Our clients) are from the Lower 48, and they’re unsettled. They are scared. They don’t want to fly.” Normally booked out months ahead, Drifter’s Lodge has watched its May and June bookings dwindle. Some clients are holding out, hoping the restrictions will be relaxed and the mandatory quarantine for out-of-state travelers will be lifted, but others are cancelling or rescheduling. For some clients, it’s the second rescheduling. Last year, heavy smoke from the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge limited business in Cooper Landing as well. Like some other businesses, Drifter’s Lodge has chosen to stay open with the hope of some level of visitation this season. With assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act providing financial relief to businesses affected by the pandemic, the lodge hired on staff and plans to continue providing services. But the program is designed to stop employers from laying off employees and so covers their pay, but only that. Figuring out how to get employees from the Lower 48 to Alaska has been a challenge, too, as they have to quarantine when they get to the state. It’s not entirely clear who is responsible for paying for the quarantine, Rima said. Getting a loan is tough right now, too, with little to no income available with very few clients able to come, Rima said. “This is going to be a tough year for a lot of people on the (Kenai) Peninsula for sure,” he said. “Most places, you’re lucky to have one or two months of reserves.” There are still some bookings coming in, but there remain a lot of questions for businesses in the area. At the Inn at Tern Lake, near Moose Pass, most of the June bookings have been cancelled or moved, but some others have come in for later in the season, said Jeff Hetrick, who owns the Inn at Tern Lake near Moose Pass with his wife Rose. “We don’t know,” he said. “We’re optimistic by nature, but we’re on standby, just like everybody else. Hopefully by 2021, we’ll be back to normal.” Cooper Landing, with its predominantly outdoor recreation-based tourism economy, is far from alone in its economic struggle this year. Talkeetna is facing the dual hits of an anemic visitor season and the cancellation of the 2020 Denali climbing season, for which Talkeetna serves as the primary base camp. Guides and tour companies in Girdwood, the hub for visitors at the edge of the Chugach National Forest, are facing a very slow season, and the Hotel Alyeska is temporarily closed until May 31, 2020. Operators in other communities, like Seward and Valdez, are planning for abridged seasons or are working on deals to attract Alaskans until out-of-state visitors may be able to come. While the loss of the majority of cruise traffic has been a major hit for the communities of Southeast Alaska, the region does have its independent travelers and still hopes to see some later in the season, said Dan Kirkwood, general manager of Pack Creek Bear Tours in Juneau. “Despite (the COVID-19) concerns, we still have this incredibly awesome state that we live in that people want to come see,” he said. “We are tracking the state mandates on mitigating the spread, and we are hopeful that we will find a way to do right by our community.” Pack Creek Bear Tours transports clients from Juneau to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island by float plane. The company is still figuring out the logistics of how to transport and serve clients while following social distancing guidelines. Even if the state lifted the mandatory quarantine policy and visitors were able to come again this summer, it wouldn’t be the same season it was going to be before the outbreak of the pandemic in March. For one, the loss of the bulk of cruise ship passengers significantly scales back the number of tourists coming to the state overall; second, even if Alaska relaxes its restrictions, other states may not, and people may still not feel comfortable traveling. Adding that to the economic harm done by the pandemic shutdowns, which will likely leave people with less disposable income to take vacations for some time, the Alaska tourism industry may have to tighten its belt for more than just this season. Some of the members of the outdoor industry are looking for a little more support to make it through, though not just in grants. In a letter to Alaska’s congressional delegation sent in late April, a group of businesses through the Alaska Outdoor Alliance requested a $2 billion aid package spread over five years specifically targeted toward the Alaska outdoor industry. “We know there’s a lot of furloughed employees, and we know things aren’t going to bounce back; the cruise ships aren’t coming, so they’re not going to bounce back to even last year’s levels,” said Lee Hart, the AOA’s executive director. “We just want to get people back to work, with real wages (so) that they can pay rent, buy groceries.” Modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, an outdoor work program developed during the Great Depression, the stimulus would pay living wages to workers who worked on recreation and restoration projects in the state. Guides and outdoor industry companies, who know their areas well and are currently short on work, would be able to use their equipment and expertise to improve trail projects in their areas while being paid for work, Hart said. The request is for the conservation corps portion to last three years and provide $750 million. The other part of the request, spread over five years, would focus on deferred maintenance projects. The organization is looking to existing grant infrastructure for its requests to speed up the process, Hart said. In planning for the program, the federal agencies said they had desire to scale up the work if they had the funding, she said. Kirkwood said the program’s use of local guides and operators would make sense, as they have knowledge of the areas in which they operate and a stake in the outcome. In the case of Pack Creek Bear Tours, the guides are comfortable working in close proximity to brown bears in a remote area. “I think that’s where the local knowledge (comes in),” he said. “To a lesser extent, if your company runs a tour on the trails, then your company has a real investment in that infrastructure.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

With pandemic procedures in place, Copper River ready to open

With about two weeks until the Copper River salmon season, the industry is pulling together the details of how to execute a safe fishery amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of vessels and workers flood into Prince William Sound each May for a chance to harvest the first fresh wild king salmon of the year, followed by the famous Copper River sockeye and the broader Prince William Sound pink salmon fisheries. However, with limited road access and health care facilities, city and state officials have been coordinating with the fleet and stakeholders about how to safely allow in deckhands, captains, and processing workers from Outside without inviting the pandemic to Cordova as well. As of April 28, Cordova had not reported any positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With no ferry service this winter and no connection to the road system, Cordova has limited physical contact with the rest of Alaska and the Lower 48 except during the fishing season. Bringing in seafood workers from outside the area poses a risk, but not doing so means the fishery — a vital economic driver in the region — wouldn’t be able to operate as normal. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration released Health Mandate 17 on April 23, offering guidelines for commercial fishermen to help control the spread of COVID-19. Fishermen often work in close quarters on boats and in harbors, as do processing workers. The mandate outlines requirements such as screening procedures for crew, quarantine for workers coming into the state, and prohibiting non-essential trips into town for non-local crew, among others. “Fishermen are very concerned and have been concerned since day one,” said Francis Leach, the executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. “Now that procedures have been put in place, there are a lot of questions. It’s always a learning curve. Folks are really going to have to pay attention to (the mandate).” UFA, along with other stakeholders, weighed in on the mandate prior to its release. Having the mandate helps define what fishermen need to figure out for their plans for the summer, Leach said. It also eliminates the need for every individual fishermen to submit a plan of operation. A number of fisheries are already operating, including halibut longliners, and though salmon are the largest fishery by number of employees, the UFA represents all commercial fishermen across the state. One of the hanging questions, though, is how to make sure fishermen get access to the equipment they need to comply with the mandate. One of the items required is that captains conduct temperature screenings on crewmen before boarding and “as needed to minimize risk,” according to the mandate. Right now, with the demand on personal protective equipment and medical supplies high in all areas, getting enough disposable thermometers, masks, gloves, and sanitizing materials could be a challenge. “Different sectors of the industry are working on that,” she said. “It’s very hard—you can’t just run down to the store right now and get a thermometer. At least, in Juneau you can’t.” The Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, housed within the University of Alaska, is working to make more Alaska-manufactured PPE available, including face masks and sanitizing equipment, by helping manufacturers convert to making the equipment. While some is available on demand, other items can be arranged on an as-needs basis, according to the Alaska MEP. While many of the Copper River fleet’s workers live locally in Cordova, others live aboard their vessels or come to the community for the season. Cordova District Fishermen United, a trade group representing Copper River-area fishermen, is working to get clarification about whether fishermen who live aboard their vessels during the season qualify as locals and therefore can disembark and enter Cordova, said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of the CDFU. The group is also seeking clarification for what constitutes a “non-essential” trip into town. Overall, though, the mandate simplifies some of the aspects of Mandate 10, she said. “As far as the uncertainties go, a lot of it is trying to navigate the businesses around town, getting parts and groceries and things,” she said. “It’s definitely changing the way the fleet operates; it’s definitely not business as usual.” There is uncertainty among the fleet going into this season, as the COVID-19 situation is changing frequently, particularly as it regards travel to and from communities, Haisman said. However, the stakeholders have been involved in the City of Cordova incident management task forces and have been regularly coordinating with the processors to deal with the season’s challenges. Most of the fleet is concerned with how to operate the fishery without endangering coastal communities, she said. “We acknowledge the concern of communities as the season begins and we will continue doing important outreach to ensure that fishermen have the information on all state and local mandates, as well as access to resources to help them get their vessels geared up for the season,” she said. Processors have been working together this spring to try to determine best practices for worker safety while still operating in Alaska. Many salmon processors, including Cordova, operate facilities in remote communities and bring in workers from all over Alaska and Outside to work for the season. The processors have been in close communication with the state, communities and stakeholders, Leach and Haisman said. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has jurisdiction over processing plants and can take enforcement actions if the operators do not comply with safety measures. Dunleavy’s Health Mandate 3, which closed bars, restaurants, and other food establishments, did not include seafood processors, as they were included in the list of essential businesses. Since the mandate came out, the DEC has received seven complaints of businesses allegedly violating the mandate, said Laura Achee, a spokesperson for the DEC. She did not specify the type of businesses. “For each, DEC responded by speaking the operator, and the operator voluntarily complied with the mandate with no further action needed,” she said. Beyond just the logistics of getting the salmon into nets, another lingering question is what will happen to them once they’re on their way to the market. Copper River king salmon are usually greeted by the red carpet of the seafood world, with a ceremony in Seattle when the first arrives via Alaska Airlines flight. In the past, the first Copper River kings have gone for $50 per pound — primarily to restaurants. And therein lies the rub: Most restaurants nationwide are currently closed for social distancing. It remains to be seen what will happen with restaurants as states and the federal government move to reopen the economy, but right now the prices Copper River fishermen are likely to see are uncertain, said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the consultant firm the McDowell Group. “In a typical year, we kind of have an establish playbook we can rely on,” he said. “Right now, because everything is changing all at once, we really struggle to understand what’s going to happen.” Grocery stores don’t typically pay as much nor charge as much for the fish, and as the season goes on, the prices for kings and sockeye usually drop as more fisheries come online. Copper River in the past has been an indicator for how prices may behave in the rest of the season, but this year it may not, Evridge said. The same is true in other regions of Alaska; what’s true in one region for prices may not be true in another this year, he said. Another factor that may affect demand for Alaska’s seafood is the negative impacts on the economy that will last beyond the end of the pandemic restrictions. Alaska’s wild-caught seafood typically commands a higher price than farmed Atlantic salmon or other comparable products. With millions out of work nationally, the economy may move into a recession, which would affect demand for a higher-price product. Retail demand has been strong, but it’s hard to say whether that will continue, Evridge said. The first announcement for the Copper River District will be issued between May 1 and May 8, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

UAA graduates some nurses early amid COVID

With the coronavirus pandemic increasing pressure on hospitals and demand for health care workers, a handful of new nurses will be launching into the field from the University of Alaska Anchorage. UAA’s School of Nursing recently graduated a handful of its senior students a few weeks early, allowing them to move into the health care workforce right away. The School of Nursing and College of Health administration offered a chance for up to 72 students in the bachelor’s and associate’s programs in good academic standing the chance to finish their last few credits on a faster timeline. They were then eligible for a temporary license from the state Board of Nursing to allow them to begin practicing immediately, provided they take the full registered nurse exam within six months. Jeff Jessee, the dean of the College of Health, said many of the eligible students were in clinicals at the local hospitals when the pandemic struck. The university administrators considered each student on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they were comfortable recommending that student for graduation and licensure, and the accreditors and state Board of Nursing worked with those recommendations. “Some of (the students) were, say, a few hours short of finishing their clinical hours that were required,” he said. “What we were able to do was start going through each of their transcripts and analyze how far along in their program they are, looking at their skills, certifications, and identifying those students whom we felt comfortable that the School of Nursing could certify that we could graduate.” The nursing students are equipped with all the skills they need to be able to treat COVID-19 in the course of the regular curriculum, even if they do not go to work in the ICU with coronavirus-positive patients right away, Jessee said. Because the graduates were working in clinicals in the area hospitals, the medical staff there knows them and their skills as they go into the workforce, he said. One of the primary reasons for the drastic measures taken by governments across the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus is to prevent health care facilities from being overwhelmed. In areas with significant numbers of infections, like New York City and Florida, hospitals are reporting concerns about being able to find enough nurses to meet their needs. However, Alaska implemented closures early and thus has not seen a significant spike in cases, leaving hospitals with enough capacity so far to handle them. The additional move of restricting elective surgeries, opening up additional capacity, has helped with those concerns and actually left some nurses without enough work so far, Jessee said. That decision has financially hit hospitals, which make much of their revenue from outpatient, elective, and ambulatory surgeries. While the restrictions have been difficult across Alaska, the moves have helped keep the state out of danger of being overwhelmed, Jessee said. “You can’t wait for this curve to shoot up, because it happens so fast; by the time you realize you’re overwhelmed, it’s too late,” he said. “That’s the really advantage Alaska has had in getting so far ahead of this … If and when we start seeing the numbers that other places are seeing, we’ll already have this capacity in place.” In addition to the early graduates, the School of Nursing is encouraging the rest of its students to obtain their Certified Nursing Assistant credentials if they do not already have them to be able to go to work in the industry. CNAs provide basic patient care, which can free up nurses in health care facilities to provide the higher levels of care they are qualified for. CNA certifications are already somewhat common in the School of Nursing; any student who has completed at least a year of an associate’s or bachelor’s program qualifies to take the exam. Jessee said many students work as they complete their nursing education program, and a CNA allows students to start working in the health care setting before graduating. The College of Health and School of Nursing, along with the entire University of Alaska system, has transitioned to primarily distance education this spring as a way to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus on college campuses. The School of Nursing had a head start on online courses, as the classes are already distributed to sites across the state from Kotzebue to Bethel to Ketchikan, Jessee said. The state recently designated health education as essential, and so some classes will be able to go back to face-to-face meetings, he said. While the accelerated graduation will help some graduates enter the workforce faster as their services are in high demand, the graduates of the School of Nursing never really have a hard time finding jobs, Jessee said; many are hired before they graduate. Though the university appreciates the help of the Board of Nursing and the accreditation agency to help some graduates move forward sooner, the administration is planning to be back on track with the normal academic schedule in the future. “I think we’re pretty confident that we’re going to be able to get back on track and keep our students moving through the program at the normal pace when we‘ve fully adapted to the distance courses, remote learning, those sorts of things,” Jessee said. “I think it’s this emergent situation that required us to make some adaptations right away. There may be some changes going forward, to keep the numbers (of available nurses) up, but we have a pretty good production system already. Once we adapt to the new reality, as people say, I think we’ll be back on track.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Fishing industry grapples with fallout from coronavirus response

Like almost all industries and institutions across Alaska, the novel coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the fishing industry. With restrictions changing almost daily and cases spreading across the United States, fishermen are still fishing, but the normal seasonal progression of the industry is likely to hit some rough waters. Travel in and out of Alaska has dropped after federal and state advisories against it, and questions are hovering about how seafood processors and fishing vessels will find the employees they need for upcoming seasons. Demand for seafood has fallen in restaurants after sweeping closures, and large numbers of layoffs may affect demand as workers scale back their expenses after losing incomes. Status-quo industry events have been disrupted, too. Hiring events have been postponed or canceled; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cancelled its April meeting, and Kodiak’s annual ComFish exposition has been rescheduled for Sept. 17-19 due to concerns about gatherings where the COVID-19—the name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—could be spread. As of March 24, Alaska had reported 42 cases of the illness in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Soldotna, Ketchikan, Sterling, Seward, Juneau and Palmer. The primary recommendation to limit the speed of spread is to maintain physical distance of at least six feet. But it can be hard to limit close contact in the seafood industry, where fishermen work in close quarters on vessels and processing plant workers sleep in dormitories and work together. Adding to that, the workers in the seafood industry are often seasonal and come from outside the communities where they work, from elsewhere in Alaska, the Lower 48 or international. That’s something the processing industry is working hard to figure out. For the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 have spread across the U.S., seafood processors in the North Pacific have been meeting in a work group to coordinate how to respond to the pandemic, said Chris Barrows, the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “From the earliest days of the COVID-19 threat, companies have worked with urgency, together — within this AFISH Committee, to minimize the impacts of this public health threat on Alaskan fishing communities, fishing crews, and processing workers,” Barrows said. “As part of those efforts we have strengthened cross-company information sharing through this AFISH Committee, including through formation of a layered, robust prevention and response network and continue to work together to update guidelines focused exclusively on challenges relating to COVID-19.” The group is currently working on partnerships with public health and government authorities on how to protect employees and the communities they work in, he said. Many of the plants in Alaska are in remote communities with small year-round populations, such as Akutan, Cordova, False Pass and Dutch Harbor. Community leaders from the involved regions, including Unalaska and Bristol Bay, are involved in the discussions, and Barrows said leaders from other remote communities are welcome to work with the committee on response and prevention coordination. Government public health and safety officials from Washington, Alaska, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Coast Guard are all involved in the committee as well, Barrows said. “The network continues to share within the membership guidance on best practices for companies, vessels, and plants throughout Alaska and work to disseminate the most up-to-date information from state and federal authorities to key stakeholders,” he said. The seafood industry relies on seasonal labor from Outside, much of it from foreign countries. Nelson San Juan, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, estimated that the seafood industry brings in more than 20,000 workers to the state each year. The guidelines for how to handle employees coming in from out of state and out of country are still new, he said. On March 23, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued Health Mandate 10, requiring anyone traveling into the state — resident, visitor or worker — to self-quarantine for 14 days, from March 24 until at least April 21. Visitors and incoming workers will have to go directly to their hotels or rented housing to quarantine, where they can only leave for medical emergencies. Businesses who had to bring in workers from Outside to maintain critical infrastructure were required to submit a plan on how they would prevent the spread of the illness and not endanger the lives of other employees or those in the communities to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development by 3 p.m. March 24, according to the mandate. Barrows said the governor’s office had informed the industry of the mandate, and the AFISH committee is working on how to handle the quarantine requirement and worker plan. Seafood companies are also updating their screening and monitoring plans with maritime health doctors to prevent anyone with a risk profile from traveling to the remote communities and prevent sick crew members from being placed on vessels or in plants, he said. “We are all operating in a period of high uncertainty,” he said. “Access to a sufficient and healthy workforce is key challenge among those uncertainties. The industry is working together, and with local, state, (and) federal officials to successfully address such challenges.” Health Mandate 10 included a list of industries identified as essential to national infrastructure, within which employees would still be allowed to report to work. The fishing industry, including seafood processing, was included on the list, along with other agricultural and food supply industries. In Bristol Bay, where the workers largely come from out of the region, the mandate raised some concern because of the timeline. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association wrote on its website that anyone who needed to bring in workers prior to May 1 had to submit any plan they had before 3 p.m. March 24, while others who need to bring in workers after that date could submit plans now or at a later date to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. BBRSDA originally looked into submitting a “blanket plan” for all Bristol Bay fishermen, but because of the tight timeline, it likely wouldn’t be feasible, and the organization wrote that it would continue to work on it if deadlines are extended. “In terms of broad advice, it is critical that everyone prioritize partitioning and avoiding increasing the number of places where the virus can live and spread,” BBRSDA wrote on its website. “For partitioning, this means isolating yourself and crew as much as possible until you can get on the water or to your setnet site.” Under regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, seafood processing plants are already required to practice safe sanitizing processes for food products. So far, the federal government has not found that the coronavirus can be spread through food, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The coronavirus has been found to live on surfaces, but it is unlikely that it will be spread by food products or packaging that has been shipped for a period of time at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures, according to ASMI. “As part of each plant’s required preparedness plans, there are contingency mechanisms in place to deal with human disease outbreaks and other externalities so as to protect the health and safety of both employees and the public and guard against threats that could cause a disruption to plant and processing activities,” ASMI wrote on its website. “Human health and food safety are always the priority.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

A bright spot in recession, tourism outlook dims with uncertainty

For the past five years, tourism has been one of the bright spots in Alaska’s struggling economy. This summer, it may dim down. The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19, across the United States this spring has interrupted almost every aspect of American life. Air travel has plummeted, and cruise ships across the U.S. have voluntarily suspended all service for at least a month. Another record number of tourists, some 1.4 million, were expected to arrive by cruise ship this year according to the Cruise Line Industry Association-Alaska. Alaska Airlines has dropped a number of regular flights and has indicated plans to further reduce service in the face of reduced travel. Canada has limited all non-essential land border crossings, and Alaska now requires all people entering the state between March 24 and April 21 to self-quarantine for two weeks. The Port of Seattle also announced March 24 it is suspending cruise travel indefinitely. All of those things bear ill omens for Alaska’s 2020 tourism season. About 70 percent of Alaska’s tourists arrive by cruise ship, visiting communities from Ketchikan to Fairbanks. In addition to the voluntary shutdown by the U.S. cruise industry, Canada announced that it would close its ports to cruise traffic through July 1. Because all cruise vessels on their way to Alaska are required to stop over in Canada, the closure would cut off about half the season. To try to reopen that part of the season, the Alaska Travel Industry Association, or ATIA, has requested an exception to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which would allow vessels carrying more than 500 passengers to bypass Canada on their way to Alaska. “The loss of these weeks of the season will devastate Southeast Alaska ports, and reduce the number of visitors to all other regions of the State,” the ATIA wrote in a letter to Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young. “The economic impacts to our communities—and to the hundreds of small businesses and their thousands of employees who rely on cruise ship visitors for their economic livelihoods—will be decimating.” An exemption to the foreign port rule would help preserve tourism jobs in the state, mitigating job and revenue losses, the letter states. The ATIA is also advocating for federal assistance to businesses affected by the outbreak. The U.S. Travel Association projects a total loss of approximately $809 billion in the 2020 travel industry, with a loss of 4.6 million jobs, 3.5 million of them directly in tourism, said ATIA President and CEO Sarah Leonard in an email. Alaska is highly reliant on out-of-state and international visitors, making the state vulnerable to disruptions in national and international affairs, she said. “I can only project that the level of economic loss, including tourism jobs and revenue in Alaska will be significant as the impact is happening now and will likely last into the summer season,” she said. “Tourism businesses have already taken a hit and are struggling with solvency and cash flow decisions, due to cancellations and refunds.” The Cruise Line Industry Association did not sign onto ATIA’s letter but supports the efforts to communicate the importance of the industry, said CLIA Alaska Public Affairs senior director Lalanya Downs. “For CLIA, we are focusing our efforts on evaluating ways we can improve our protocols to better protect our passengers, crews, and the communities we visit,” she wrote in an email. “Since the voluntary suspension of cruise operations, we have also been very focused on finding ports for our vessels and helping our guests return to their homes and families during these challenging times.” Though CLIA does not track individual company bookings, there have been some sailing cancellations so far; however, the situation is fluid and hard to predict, Downs said. Since the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency Jan. 30, cruise lines have begun denying boarding to people who have traveled from, visited, or traveled through airports in South Korea, Iran, China, and municipalities in Italy under lockdown. Other ships were held off shore in search of ports, including in the U.S., when passengers fell ill on a cruise to Mexico from California. CLIA met with Vice President Mike Pence about further health safety measures, including more rigorous boarding procedures, adding more medical resources on board and temperature screenings at departure. “Our focus right now continues to be on evaluating ways we can safely return to service at the appropriate time,” Downs said. Fairbanks, where winter tourism has been growing significantly in recent years, has already seen a drop in revenue. Though businesses reported good January and February returns, “the bottom fell out” in March, said Deb Hickok, the president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks, the region’s tourism marketing organization. “March is our most popular winter month,” she said. “In-season winter cancellations were felt immediately … and then we’re hearing more and more cancellations for summer visitation.” Winter tourism has been a growing season in Fairbanks, with visitors coming in to enjoy the skiing, winter activities, and northern lights via the airport and on the Alaska Railroad. About 20 percent of the visitors during the aurora season — which runs roughly from Aug. 21 through April 21 — come from China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began. This year, the visitation definitely dropped, Hickok said. The Alaska Railroad cancelled its remaining Aurora Train and Easter Train services between March 19 and April 30 as well. Though Fairbanks is about 400 miles from the Gulf of Alaska, the tourism industry there is also dependent on cruises. The Alaska Railroad takes many cruise ship passengers north from Southcentral, where they disembark at Seward or Whittier, north through Denali National Park to Fairbanks. Approximately 160,000 cruise ship passengers go north to Fairbanks, about 41 percent of the area’s visitation, and the businesses reliant on them are grappling with the uncertainty of when the season will start and how big it will be this year, Hickok said. Other businesses are wondering how big of a season to predict, in part because of travel restrictions and in part because of the shock to consumer confidence, which may stop people from traveling even if the planes, roads and ships are open. “There are some businesses built on cruise-land tourism,” she said. “(Another factor) is that confidence shock. (Businesses are) really grappling now. How many staff should they hire? When should they start operations?” Some of the tourism industry spending in Alaska comes from Alaskans traveling to various regions of the state, staying in hotels and participating in activities in other regions. However, the state’s population isn’t very large, and likely wouldn’t make up for a large loss in out-of-state tourism, Hickok said. ATIA estimates that the tourism industry was worth about $4.5 billion in total revenue within the state in 2018, supporting about 1 in 10 private-sector jobs. Businesses and tourism industry advocates are working on their plans now, but the future is still uncertain, she said. “Last week we were in shell shock,” she said. “Now we’re just trying to figure it out, what it means. We might not have the answers for a while.” Elizabeth Earl can be reaced at [email protected]

FCC orders telecoms to inventory Chinese equipment

Nearly a year after the federal government labeled Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE as potential national security threats, the Federal Communications Commission is looking for more complete information about which American companies are using their equipment. The FCC announced Feb. 26 that all telecommunications companies eligible for Universal Service Fund monies are required to inventory and report the cost of replacing any Huawei or ZTE equipment currently in use. The data, which companies can report through a portal on the FCC’s website, is due by April 22. The reporting is optional for companies that are not USF-eligible. “Given that those designations may become final this spring, we are moving forward quickly to identify where equipment and services from these suppliers are embedded in our communications networks and, where they do have a foothold, to be in a position to help remove them,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in the release. Companies have to report the type of equipment from Huawei or ZTE they are using, how it’s being used, what they paid for it and how much it would cost to replace. The latter information could be used for a reimbursement program, according to the announcement. Many telecommunications companies, particularly small ones, rely on the USF, which distributes billions in funding every year, paid for by telecommunications companies based on an assessment of their end-user revenues. Funds are provided through four programs: the Connect America Fund, which helps cover the costs of providing service in high-cost areas; low-income support; the E-Rate program, which provides funds to help schools and libraries obtain telecommunications services; and support for rural health care clinics. Accusations that Huawei and ZTE pose a national security threat go back for years, linked to concerns that the companies include “back doors” in their security protocols for spyware. In 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration moved to flag Huawei—a Chinese technology company—as a potential national security threat because of security flaws discovered in some of its devices. ZTE, another Chinese technology company known particularly for smartphones, was also added to the list. The companies’ ties to the Chinese government raised further scrutiny. Some U.S. companies, including Google, have indicated that they intend to continue working with Huawei, but Congress indicated that the FCC should require that U.S. telecommunications providers rip and replace the now-prohibited equipment. The problem is that is incredibly expensive, especially for smaller companies. The Huawei and ZTE equipment is typically much cheaper than equivalents available from other countries. So as part of the plan to replace all the equipment, Congress is working on a bill to reimburse companies for replacing the equipment. Sen. Dan Sullivan cosponsored the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act of 2019, which passed the Senate March 4 and would prohibit the FCC from subsidizing the purchase of any equipment from “untrusted suppliers” as well as set up a reimbursement program for companies with fewer than two million customers to replace the equipment. The House passed a companion bill on March 3, and the legislation package is now before Trump to sign. Alaska’s two main state-based telecommunications providers, Alaska Communications and GCI, won’t be affected by the reporting requirement and equipment replacement. Neither has any Huawei or ZTE equipment in use at this time, according to spokespeople for both companies. “GCI has been monitoring the situation since last year and we have already conducted an inventory of our network,” said Heather Handyside, GCI’s vice president of corporate communications, in an email. “I am pleased to report that GCI has no Huawei/ZTE equipment on our network systems.” The Alaska providers who may be required to report to the FCC are prepared to do so, said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association. The details of the reimbursement program through the FCC are still up in the air. The commission has not yet adopted an order on the removal and replacement program, said Tina Pelkey, a spokesman for the FCC, in an email. “The details are still pending, including what costs will be reimbursed, and the Commission has not yet decided specifics about the proposed program while we review the record,” she said. The two bills passed by the House and Senate would also establish an information-sharing network for smaller companies to obtain information related to the vulnerability of their networks. The bill focuses largely on the ongoing conversion to 5G networks, which are being rolled out in some regions of the U.S. and worldwide. 5G, the fifth generation of cellular and wireless network standards, is expected to increase wireless speeds and reduce latency, among other improvements. Alaska, with its broad geography and small population, has lagged behind the country in implementation of 4G, and some regions still don’t have reliable coverage. As companies look to adapt to the changing network standards, the bill aims to push them away from purchasing equipment from companies that could pose a national security threat — particularly Chinese companies. Last year, AT&T announced buildouts of 5G network capability in Alaska, including Anchorage, Bethel and Kusilvak. GCI began building out its 5G infrastructure in Alaska in 2019, with completion expected in 2020 and rollout expected in the first half of the year, according to GCI’s website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet setnet permit buyout bill stalled in Senate

Cook Inlet’s East Side setnetters are still looking for relief in the form of a permit buyback, but the bill that would allow it is stuck in the Legislature. Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, would establish a mechanism in law for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side to set up a permit buyback. There’s no funding included in the bill, but the establishment of the mechanism itself would allow stakeholders to seek funding, whether it comes from the federal government, state, or private equity. Micciche introduced the bill in the 2019 session, when it received three hearings in the Senate Resources Committee. However, it does not currently have any hearings scheduled as of March 10. Micciche said he hopes to get the bill moving soon and intended to request hearings for it. “It’s certainly a high priority; it’s at the top of my list,” Micciche said. “My goal is to get it passed in this session.” The East Side setnet fishery has gradually been losing value for years. For the last few decades, user-group politics have led to the Board of Fisheries reducing the time and area allowances for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side, who compete for salmon headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, which also host large sport and personal-use fisheries. In 2014, after the disastrously low king salmon runs in Cook Inlet, the Board of Fisheries instituted paired-use restrictions, which further reduced setnet fishing time on the East Side and based openings on the type of gear allowed for king salmon sportfishing in the Kenai River. The effect of additional time and area cuts is that some setnetters in the Kenai area now open in mid-July and close by the second week of August. However, Kenai king runs have continued to struggle, as they have across the state. Citing continuing concerns for king salmon in the Kenai River, the Board of Fisheries increased the optimum escapement goal for king salmon at its meeting in February, meaning paired restrictions may be used more often. The new paired rules restrict setnet fishing time to no more than 48 hours of fishing time per week when the sportfishery is set to no bait. If the fishery goes to no retention of fish longer than 34 inches, setnetters would be limited to no more than 36 hours of fishing per week, and if it goes to catch-and-release only, the limit would be 24 hours of fishing per week. If the sportfishery for kings closed, so would the East Side setnetters. Setnetters have long argued against the paired restrictions, saying it is not an equal burden because when they lose time, they lose opportunity, while commercial guides can still operate and make money on no bait or on catch-and-release fishing. East Side setnetters harvest kings at a higher rate than the drift gillnet commercial fishery does, in part because king salmon migrate along the shore on the way back to the river, but they primarily take sockeye salmon. As they’ve lost fishing opportunity, the value of the setnet sites and permits has gone down. In 1990, the value for Cook Inlet setnet permits reached a high of $98,514 per permit; by 2019, they were worth approximately $19,500 per permit, according to the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The decline in value has been relatively steady since the 1990s, when it climbed after large runs of salmon in the 1980s in Cook Inlet pushed the value of the catch up for commercial fishermen. Some setnetters would like to sell their permits out permanently, taking the lump sum rather than hoping the profit margin will improve. The bill would buy back up to 200 permits on Cook Inlet’s East Side, defined under a new administrative area outlined in the bill, for $260,000 each, minus the administrative costs. The site would then close permanently, ultimately reducing the fleet by about half. The goal of the bill would be to both reduce the number of nets in the water and make the remaining sites more profitable for those who choose to stay. All buybacks would be voluntary, and the program would still have to be approved by the permitholders by a vote. Micciche said there was some confusion last year and invited lawmakers to educate themselves on how the fishery and the bill work. The bill would not provide funding; it would establish the vehicle for fishermen to start researching funding, he said. Until the bill passes, they can’t approach potential funding sources. “In the meantime, they’re watching their livelihoods erode from beneath them,” he said. On Feb. 21, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, signed on as a co-sponsor, but then reversed course and removed his name about two weeks later, on March 3. Micciche said as far as he knew, Stevens still thought the buyback program was a good idea. Stevens’ office didn’t return a request for comment. At previous hearings, senators raised concerns about the proposed amount for each buyout and fishermen trying to game the system; during public comment, stakeholders objected to the bill because of the precedent of the Legislature getting involved in Cook Inlet’s messy fisheries politics, because of the closing of waters, and because of the lack of clearly identified funding in the bill. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Commerce Dept. allocates $35M for P-cod, Chignik fisheries disasters

Fishermen affected by the 2018 Pacific cod and Chignik sockeye disasters will soon have access to about $35 million in relief funding. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross allocated about $65 million to fisheries disaster relief, about $35 million of which is for Alaska, according to a Feb. 27 announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within Alaska, about $24.4 million will go to the Pacific cod fishery disaster and about $10.3 million to the Chignik sockeye fishery. The funding was appropriated when Congress passed the 2019 Consolidated and Supplemental Appropriations Act. Fisheries disasters can be declared under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act when natural disasters or management actions significantly negatively impact stakeholders’ ability to participate in a fishery. In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists are linking the decline in stock abundance to environmental causes; in Chignik, the salmon decline seemed to be linked to poor environmental conditions for sockeye that summer. Both disaster requests had already been granted, but the amount of funding that the fisheries would have allocated to them was yet to be determined. The National Marine Fisheries Service determines how much funding to allocate to fisheries based on commercial revenue loss information. Affected fishermen will be able to apply for funding to help with infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, state-run vessel and fishing permit buybacks, and job retraining, according to the announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nearly two years have passed since both disasters. At the beginning of 2018, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cut Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod total allowable catch limits by 80 percent in response to declining biomass. Then-Gov. Bill Walker requested the disaster declaration in March 2018, citing the direct impacts from loss of revenue in the fishery and indirect impacts such as reduced fuel sales and supplies. This year, the same P-cod fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska are facing a complete fishery shutdown, again due to declining biomass. The Chignik area felt the impact in summer 2018 when so few sockeye salmon showed up in the lagoon and Chignik River that commercial fishermen essentially didn’t fish all summer—they harvested an estimated 128 sockeye in 2018 compared to a five-year average of about 1.3 million, according to Walker’s November 2018 letter requesting the disaster declaration. In a rural community with little cash economy, the commercial fishery provides essential cash flow so residents can purchase items like heating fuel. “These funds help impacted fisheries recover from recent disasters and make them more resilient to future challenges,” Ross said in the NOAA release. “This allocation supports the hard-working American fishing communities suffering from impacts beyond their control.” It’s typically a significant amount of time between a fisheries disaster and the actual awarding of funds. For instance, the 2016 pink salmon disaster in the Gulf of Alaska was approved for disaster status in January 2017, but funds didn’t materialize for distribution until 2019 and are still being distributed in 2020. The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill, S. 2346, that would streamline some of the regulations and processes for determining a fishery disaster and getting funding out to affected stakeholders. The bill was last heard in November 2019, when an amendment was requested by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The funds will be managed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Because the funding for these disasters has already been appropriated, NOAA can start working with the state agencies on distribution, said Karina Borger, communications director for Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “With NOAA’s approval today — NOAA can begin immediately working with the state-level agencies to get the funding moving to fishermen & affected communities,” she wrote in an email. Alaska’s congressional delegation released a joint statement Thursday thanking NOAA for the allocation and encouraging the agency to continue its scientific work to determine drivers of “resource fluctuations.” “Alaska’s fisheries are vital to our state, coastal communities, and families,” they said in the statement. “By restoring these losses, our federal government is following through not only on the commitment we made to Alaska’s commercial fisherman, but also to their families, processors, and coastal communities who were hit hard by these disasters. The economic impact for fisherman and their communities could have been detrimental. This economic relief will go a long way.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

House bill would establish health care payment database

Amid the ongoing effort to control Alaska’s ballooning health care costs, the Legislature is considering a bill that would establish a central repository for pricing data. House Bill 229, sponsored by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, would establish an all-payer claims database for Alaska, along with the Alaska Health Care Transformation Corp. to manage it. Insurers in the state would be required to work with the corporation, which would be independent from the state government, to report all claims paid for health care services with the goal of making the information more transparent. Health care costs are higher in Alaska than anywhere else in the U.S. and have grown at a faster rate per year over the past three decades than the U.S. average, increasing about 7.9 percent per year, according to the bill. Approximately 13.6 percent of Alaskan adults reported not being able to see a doctor because of costs in 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The high costs are in part due to Alaska’s geography and limited competition, and legislators have been debating how to control those escalating costs for the past decade. “Understanding the underlying cost drivers and market pressures of the cost of health care is important to developing policies and solutions,” Spohnholz wrote in her sponsor statement for the bill. “An Alaska Health Care Transformation Corporation tasked with establishing an (all-payer claims database) will provide a foundation for ongoing analysis, development, implementation and support for health care policy. Payers would report medical claims, pharmacy claims, dental claims and eligibility information to the database, said Sandra Heffern, owner of consulting firm Effective Health Design and the project coordinator for the Alaska Health Care Transformation Project. The database would include information from private insurers that other data sets, such as Medicare or Medicaid payments, do not currently include. The APCD would provide apolitical data that would inform policy recommendations, she said. One of the thorny things about incentivizing competition in the health care industry is that even determining what a service costs can be a complicated question. Providers have varying charges based on an individual person’s insurance, and the itemization of services can be unclear until the bill arrives. In 2017, the Municipality of Anchorage passed a health care cost transparency ordinance that required providers in the municipality to disclose cost information to patients who requested it. In 2018, the state Legislature passed a similar law, slated to go into effect in January 2019. However, DHSS announced it would not impose penalties on providers or health care facilities by that date, giving them more time, with the expectation they will comply with the law. The project committee that developed the idea for an Alaska APCD began meeting in 2017, the same year the final results for an Alaska Health Care Authority feasibility study were published. However, the two efforts were not connected, Heffern said. Provider stakeholders have been involved in the process from the beginning, as have legislators, she said. “The project grew out of a discussion with senators, representatives, the administration and providers who all wanted to ‘do something’ about reforming the Alaska healthcare landscape,” she said. “The project brought these often disparate voices together to approach a solution from the multiple perspectives of payers, providers, policymakers and patient advocates.” Alaska would join a growing group of states amalgamating data in the hopes of improving transparency about health care service charges and using it to develop policy recommendations designed to control the costs of health care. Nationally, health care spending grew about 4.4 percent in 2018, reaching about $3.6 trillion, and under current law is projected to reach nearly $6 trillion by 2027, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Alaska’s health care spending was worth approximately $7.5 billion in 2011, and has grown in the nearly 10 years since, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage report. APCDs have been around for some time; Maine, one of the first states to do so, implemented one in 2012. Maryland, another state with a database in effect, has been using its data to establish a baseline for charges to understand cost drivers and costs in the state versus other regions. Sen. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, introduced a bill in 2019 that, among other changes, would require health insurers to make information like cost estimates available to enrollees through technology. The existence of the database alone may not be enough to drive down costs, but it may help Alaska analyze to how to at least hold down costs—even a 2 percent reduction in the average annual growth rate would save about $150 million, Heffern said. Dr. Norm Thurston, the executive director of the National Association of Health Data Organizations, told the members of the House Labor and Commerce Committee in a Feb. 21 hearing that small states were the first to do these databases, in part because of how complex the health care payer systems are in the more populous states like California and New York. “This traditionally has been a movement coming out of small states and moving into larger states,” he said. “I’m shocked that … New York is in the process of developing one, because of the level of complexity in doing it in those states.” Thurston said many states have chosen to use an outside vendor for the actual technology side of the database, as the solutions already exist and don’t have to be developed by the state itself, but that presents a higher up-front cost. Other states, like Arkansas, built it entirely within state government. The corporation that would manage it would be an independent, state-formed entity with its own governance and structure, like the Alaska Railroad Corp. In the bill’s current form, the corporation would be governed by a council of 17 governor-appointed voting members and four nonvoting. The seats for the voting members would be divided among providers, payers, policy makers, consumers, and state officials from the Division of Insurance and the Division of Retirement and Benefits. The reason the project committee was interested in a third-party corporation managing the database was in part because they wanted to create a “trusted entity” to handle the data that wouldn’t be beholden to the state, Heffern told the committee. “In order to make these types of changes in our health care system, we have to have this kind of information, and there has to be a trusted entity so that everybody in the health care industry would trust what the trusted entity is saying,” she said. The bill has had two hearings and is currently in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]


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